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Against all hopelessness, Liesel still checked the mailbox each afternoon, throughout March and well into April. This was despite a Hans-requested visit from Frau Heinrich, who explained to the Hubermanns that the foster care office had lost contact completely with Paula Meminger. Still, the girl persisted, and as you might expect, each day, when she searched the mail, there was nothing.

Molching, like the rest of Germany, was in the grip of preparing for Hitlers birthday. This particular year, with the development of the war and Hitlers current victorious position, the Nazi partisans of Molching wanted the celebration to be especially befitting. There would be a parade. Marching. Music. Singing. There would be a fire.

While Liesel walked the streets of Molching, picking up and delivering washing and ironing, Nazi Party members were accumulating fuel. A couple of times, Liesel was a witness to men and women knocking on doors, asking people if they had any material that they felt should be done away with or destroyed. Papas copy of the Molching Express announced that there would be a celebratory fire in the town square, which would be attended by all local Hitler Youth divisions. It would commemorate not only the Fhrers birthday, but the victory over his enemies and over the restraints that had held Germany back since the end of World War I. Any materials, it requested, from such timesnewspapers, posters, books, flagsand any found propaganda of our enemies should be brought forward to the Nazi Party office on Munich Street. Even Schiller Strassethe road of yellow starswhich was still awaiting its renovation, was ransacked one last time, to find something, anything, to burn in the name of the Fhrers glory. It would have come as no surprise if certain members of the party had gone away and published a thousand or so books or posters of poisonous moral matter simply to incinerate them.

Everything was in place to make April 20 magnificent. It would be a day full of burning and cheering.

And book thievery.

In the Hubermann household that morning, all was typical.

That Saukerl s looking out the window again, cursed Rosa Hubermann. Every day, she went on. What are you looking at this time?

Ohhh, moaned Papa with delight. The flag cloaked his back from the top of the window. You should have a look at this woman I can see. He glanced over his shoulder and grinned at Liesel. I might just go and run after her. She leaves you for dead, Mama.

Schwein! She shook the wooden spoon at him.

Papa continued looking out the window, at an imaginary woman and a very real corridor of German flags.

On the streets of Molching that day, each window was decorated for the Fhrer. In some places, like Frau Dillers, the glass was vigorously washed, and the swastika looked like a jewel on a red-and-white

blanket. In others, the flag trundled from the ledge like washing hung out to dry. But it was there.

Earlier, there had been a minor calamity. The Hubermanns couldnt find their flag.

Theyll come for us, Mama warned her husband. Theyll come and take us away. They. We have to find it! At one point, it seemed like Papa might have to go down to the basement and paint a flag on one of his drop sheets. Thankfully, it turned up, buried behind the accordion in the cupboard.

That infernal accordion, it was blocking my view! Mama swiveled. Liesel!

The girl had the honor of pinning the flag to the window frame.

Hans Junior and Trudy came home for the afternoon eating, like they did at Christmas or Easter. Now seems like a good time to introduce them a little more comprehensively:

Hans Junior had the eyes of his father and the height. The silver in his eyes, however, wasnt warm, like Papastheyd been Fhrer ed. There was more flesh on his bones, too, and he had prickly blond hair and skin like off-white paint.

Trudy, or Trudel, as she was often known, was only a few inches taller than Mama. She had cloned Rosa Hubermanns unfortunate, waddlesome walking style, but the rest of her was much milder. Being a live-in housemaid in a wealthy part of Munich, she was most likely bored of children, but she was always capable of at least a few smiled words in Liesels direction. She had soft lips. A quiet voice.

They came home together on the train from Munich, and it didnt take long for old tensions to rise up.



The young man was a Nazi; his father was not. In the opinion of Hans Junior, his father was part of an old, decrepit Germany one that allowed everyone else to take it for the proverbial ride while its own people suffered. As a teenager, he was aware that

his father had been called Der Fuden Maler the Jew painterfor painting Jewish houses. Then came an incident Ill fully present to you soon enoughthe day Hans blew it, on the verge of joining the party. Everyone knew you werent supposed to paint over slurs written on a Jewish shop front. Such behavior

was bad for Germany, and it was bad for the transgressor.

So have they let you in yet? Hans Junior was picking up where theyd left off at Christmas.

In what?

Take a guessthe party.

No, I think theyve forgotten about me.

Well, have you even tried again? You cant just sit around waiting for the new world to take it with you. You have to go out and be part of itdespite your past mistakes.

Papa looked up. Mistakes? Ive made many mistakes in my life, but not joining the Nazi Party isnt one of them. They still have my applicationyou know thatbut I couldnt go back to ask. I just . . .

That was when a great shiver arrived.

It waltzed through the window with the draft. Perhaps it was the breeze of the Third Reich, gathering even greater strength. Or maybe it was just Europe again, breathing. Either way, it fell across them as their metallic eyes clashed like tin cans in the kitchen.

Youve never cared about this country, said Hans Junior. Not enough, anyway.

Papas eyes started corroding. It did not stop Hans Junior. He looked now for some reason at the girl. With her three books standing upright on the table, as if in conversation, Liesel was silently mouthing the words as she read from one of them. And what trash is this girl reading? She should be reading

Mein Kampf.

Liesel looked up.

Dont worry, Liesel, Papa said. Just keep reading. He doesnt know what hes saying.

But Hans Junior wasnt finished. He stepped closer and said, Youre either for the Fhrer or against himand I can see that youre against him. You always have been. Liesel watched Hans Junior in the face, fixated on the thinness of his lips and the rocky line of his bottom teeth. Its pathetichow a man can stand by and do nothing as a whole nation cleans out the garbage and makes itself great.

Trudy and Mama sat silently, scaredly, as did Liesel. There was the smell of pea soup, something burning, and confrontation.

They were all waiting for the next words.

They came from the son. Just two of them.

You coward. He upturned them into Papas face, and he promptly left the kitchen, and the house.

Ignoring futility, Papa walked to the doorway and called out to his son. Coward? Im the coward?! He then rushed to the gate and ran pleadingly after him. Mama hurried to the window, ripped away the flag, and opened up. She, Trudy, and Liesel all crowded together, watching a father catch up to his son and grab hold of him, begging him to stop. They could hear nothing, but the manner in which Hans Junior shrugged loose was loud enough. The sight of Papa watching him walk away roared at them

from up the street.

Hansi! Mama finally cried out. Both Trudy and Liesel flinched from her voice. Come back!

The boy was gone.

Yes, the boy was gone, and I wish I could tell you that everything worked out for the younger Hans Hubermann, but it didnt.

When he vanished from Himmel Street that day in the name of the Fhrer, he would hurtle through the events of another story, each step leading tragically to Russia.

To Stalingrad.


In 1942 and early 43, in that city, the sky was bleached bedsheet-white each morning.

All day long, as I carried the souls across it, that sheet was splashed with blood, until it was full and bulging to the earth.

In the evening, it would be wrung out and bleached again, ready for the next dawn. And that was when the fighting was only during the day.

With his son gone, Hans Hubermann stood for a few moments longer. The street looked so big.

When he reappeared inside, Mama fixed her gaze on him, but no words were exchanged. She didnt admonish him at all, which, as you know, was highly unusual. Perhaps she decided he was injured enough, having been labeled a coward by his only son.

For a while, he remained silently at the table after the eating was finished. Was he really a coward, as his son had so brutally pointed out? Certainly, in World War I, he considered himself one. He attributed his survival to it. But then, is there cowardice in the acknowledgment of fear? Is there cowardice in being glad that you lived?

His thoughts crisscrossed the table as he stared into it.

Papa? Liesel asked, but he did not look at her. What was he talking about? What did he mean when . . .

Nothing, Papa answered. He spoke quiet and calm, to the table. Its nothing. Forget about him, Liesel. It took perhaps a minute for him to speak again. Shouldnt you be getting ready? He looked at her this time. Dont you have a bonfire to go to?

Yes, Papa.

The book thief went and changed into her Hitler Youth uniform, and half an hour later, they left, walking to the BDM headquarters. From there, the children would be taken to the town square in their groups.

Speeches would be made.

A fire would be lit.

A book would be stolen.


People lined the streets as the youth of Germany marched toward the town hall and the square. On quite a few occasions Liesel forgot about her mother and any other problem of which she currently held ownership. There was a swell in her chest as the people clapped them on. Some kids waved to their parents, but only brieflyit was an explicit instruction that they march straight and dont look or wave to the crowd.

When Rudys group came into the square and was instructed to halt, there was a discrepancy. Tommy Mller. The rest of the regiment stopped marching and Tommy plowed directly into the boy in front of him.

Dummkopf ! the boy spat before turning around.

Im sorry, said Tommy, arms held apologetically out. His face tripped over itself. I couldnt hear. It was only a small moment, but it was also a preview of troubles to come. For Tommy. For Rudy.

At the end of the marching, the Hitler Youth divisions were allowed to disperse. It would have been near impossible to keep them all together as the bonfire burned in their eyes and excited them. Together, they cried one united heil Hitler and were free to wander. Liesel looked for Rudy, but once the crowd of children scattered, she was caught inside a mess of uniforms and high-pitched words. Kids calling out to other kids.

By four-thirty, the air had cooled considerably.

People joked that they needed warming up. Thats all this trash is good for anyway.

Carts were used to wheel it all in. It was dumped in the middle of the town square and dowsed with something sweet. Books and paper and other material would slide or tumble down, only to be thrown back onto the pile. From further away, it looked like something volcanic. Or something grotesque and alien that had somehow landed miraculously in the middle of town and needed to be snuffed out, and fast.

The applied smell leaned toward the crowd, who were kept at a good distance. There were well in excess of a thousand people, on the ground, on the town hall steps, on the rooftops that surrounded the square.

When Liesel tried to make her way through, a crackling sound prompted her to think that the fire had already begun. It hadnt. The sound was kinetic humans, flowing, charging up.

Theyve started without me!

Although something inside told her that this was a crimeafter all, her three books were the most precious items she ownedshe was compelled to see the thing lit. She couldnt help it. I guess humans like to watch a little destruction. Sand castles, houses of cards, thats where they begin. Their great

skill is their capacity to escalate.

The thought of missing it was eased when she found a gap in the bodies and was able to see the mound of guilt, still intact. It was prodded and splashed, even spat on. It reminded her of an unpopular child, forlorn and bewildered, powerless to alter its fate. No one liked it. Head down. Hands in pockets.

Forever. Amen.

Bits and pieces continued falling to its sides as Liesel hunted for Rudy. Where is that Saukerl?

When she looked up, the sky was crouching.

A horizon of Nazi flags and uniforms rose upward, crippling her view every time she attempted to see over a smaller childs head. It was pointless. The crowd was itself. There was no swaying it, squeezing through, or reasoning with it. You breathed with it and you sang its songs. You waited for its fire.

Silence was requested by a man on a podium. His uniform was shiny brown. The iron was practically still on it. The silence began.

His first words: Heil Hitler!

His first action: the salute to the Fhrer.

Today is a beautiful day, he continued. Not only is it our great leaders birthdaybut we also stop our enemies once again. We stop them reaching into our minds. . . .

Liesel still attempted to fight her way through.

We put an end to the disease that has been spread through Germany for the last twenty years, if not more! He was performing now what is called a Schreiereia consummate exhibition of passionate shoutingwarning the crowd to be watchful, to be vigilant, to seek out and destroy the evil machinations plotting to infect the mother-land with its deplorable ways. The immoral! The Kommunisten ! That word again. That old word. Dark rooms. Suit-wearing men. Die Judenthe Jews!

Halfway through the speech, Liesel surrendered. As the word communist seized her, the remainder of the Nazi recital swept by, either side, lost somewhere in the German feet around her. Waterfalls of words. A girl treading water. She thought it again. Kommunisten.

Up until now, at the BDM, they had been told that Germany was the superior race, but no one else in particular had been mentioned. Of course, everyone knew about the Jews, as they were the main offenderin regard to violating the German ideal. Not once, however, had the communists been mentioned until today, regardless of the fact that people of such political creed were also to be punished.

She had to get out.

In front of her, a head with parted blond hair and pigtails sat absolutely still on its shoulders. Staring into it, Liesel revisited those dark rooms of her past and her mother answering questions made up of

one word.

She saw it all so clearly.

Her starving mother, her missing father. Kommunisten.

Her dead brother.

And now we say goodbye to this trash, this poison.

Just before Liesel Meminger pivoted with nausea to exit the crowd, the shiny, brown-shirted creature walked from the podium. He received a torch from an accomplice and lit the mound, which dwarfed him in all its culpability. Heil Hitler!

The audience: Heil Hitler!

A collection of men walked from a platform and surrounded the heap, igniting it, much to the approval of everyone. Voices climbed over shoulders and the smell of pure German sweat struggled at first, then poured out. It rounded corner after corner, till they were all swimming in it. The words, the sweat. And smiling. Lets not forget the smiling.

Many jocular comments followed, as did another onslaught of heil Hitlering. You know, it actually makes me wonder if anyone ever lost an eye or injured a hand or wrist with all of that. Youd only need to be facing the wrong way at the wrong time or stand marginally too close to another person. Perhaps people did get injured. Personally, I can only tell you that no one died from it, or at least, not physically. There was, of course, the matter of forty million people I picked up by the time the whole thing was finished, but thats getting all metaphoric. Allow me to return us to the fire.

The orange flames waved at the crowd as paper and print dissolved inside them. Burning words were torn from their sentences.

On the other side, beyond the blurry heat, it was possible to see the brownshirts and swastikas joining hands. You didnt see people. Only uniforms and signs.

Birds above did laps.

They circled, somehow attracted to the glowuntil they came too close to the heat. Or was it the humans? Certainly, the heat was nothing.

In her attempt to escape, a voice found her.


It made its way through and she recognized it. It was not Rudy, but she knew that voice.

She twisted free and found the face attached to it. Oh, no. Ludwig Schmeikl. He did not, as she expected, sneer or joke or make any conversation at all. All he was able to do was pull her toward him

and motion to his ankle. It had been crushed among the excitement and was bleeding dark and ominous through his sock. His face wore a helpless expression beneath his tangled blond hair. An animal. Not a deer in lights. Nothing so typical or specific. He was just an animal, hurt among the melee of its own kind, soon to be trampled by it.

Somehow, she helped him up and dragged him toward the back. Fresh air.

They staggered to the steps at the side of the church. There was some room there and they rested, both relieved.

Breath collapsed from Schmeikls mouth. It slipped down, over his throat. He managed to speak.

Sitting down, he held his ankle and found Liesel Memingers face. Thanks, he said, to her mouth rather than her eyes. More slabs of breath. And . . . They both watched images of school-yard antics, followed by a school-yard beating. Im sorryfor, you know.

Liesel heard it again.


She chose, however, to focus on Ludwig Schmeikl. Me too.

They both concentrated on breathing then, for there was nothing more to do or say. Their business had come to an end.

The blood enlarged on Ludwig Schmeikls ankle.

A single word leaned against the girl.

To their left, flames and burning books were cheered like heroes.


She remained on the steps, waiting for Papa, watching the stray ash and the corpse of collected books. Everything was sad. Orange and red embers looked like rejected candy, and most of the crowd had vanished. Shed seen Frau Diller leave (very satisfied) and Pfiffikus (white hair, a Nazi uniform, the same dilapidated shoes, and a triumphant whistle). Now there was nothing but cleaning up, and soon, no one would even imagine it had happened.

But you could smell it.

What are you doing?

Hans Hubermann arrived at the church steps.

Hi, Papa.

You were supposed to be in front of the town hall.

Sorry, Papa.

He sat down next to her, halving his tallness on the concrete and taking a piece of Liesels hair. His fingers adjusted it gently behind her ear. Liesel, whats wrong?

For a while, she said nothing. She was making calculations, despite already knowing. An eleven-year- old girl is many things, but she is not stupid.


The word communist + a large bonfire + a collection of dead letters + the suffering of her mother + the death of her brother = the Fhrer

The Fhrer.

He was the they that Hans and Rosa Hubermann were talking about that evening when she first wrote to her mother. She knew it, but she had to ask.

Is my mother a communist? Staring. Straight ahead. They were always asking her things, before I came here.

Hans edged forward a little, forming the beginnings of a lie. I have no ideaI never met her.